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Public health messaging about omicron will be vital to curb conspiracy theories

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We've said it before, and we will keep saying it - there is a lot we still don't know about the omicron variant. Scientists are scrambling to gather information, but with the first case of omicron now confirmed in the U.S. and with more cases expected, public health officials can't afford to be silent. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin explains.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: When there's silence and a vacuum of information, conspiracy theories can flourish, especially in a moment like this with a lot of anxiety and not a lot of scientific information about this new variant. Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, says there's a mantra in crisis communication

CRYSTAL WATSON: Be first, be right, be credible - and one of those is clearly being first.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In other words, don't twiddle your thumbs and wait for all the information to come in, get out there. A lot of local public health departments are putting this into practice, including in St. Louis.

MATIFADZA HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis. I'm the director of health for the city of St. Louis.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The message she's trying to get out?

HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: There's no need to panic. We still need to learn. We still need to wait for science to do its thing. But in the meantime, we have tools available to keep ourselves and our community safe. We have safe and effective vaccines, so, you know, go out and get one. We know that masking works. We know that social distancing works, and we know that hand-washing works.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: What she's communicating is basically a three-part message - don't panic, we're on it and also, stay tuned as we learn more about omicron and can give more targeted guidance. How she conveys this message is also important. She's done COVID town halls in the past, taking audience questions, and she likes that format, but...

HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: But I want to be careful about timing. I think it's very frustrating to convene people to tell them, we don't know, we don't know, we don't know, we don't know, right?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So her focus right now is on using social media platforms and connecting with community groups.

HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: And then, when we have a little bit more meat around this, to then have a town hall where we can have some really good dialogue. I'm hoping that will be able to be accomplished within the next two to three weeks.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Dr. Vish Viswanath, a professor of health communication at Harvard, says Hlatshwayo Davis' approach makes a lot of sense.

KASISOMAYAJULA VISWANATH: I think she is doing wonderful. I think that's exactly what we need.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He does point out not everyone is feeling panicked by the news of omicron. A lot of people are indifferent or actively resistant, and that can make communication harder.

VISWANATH: It's a difficult thing because, you know, people are tired. People are fatigued, and you have to understand where they are coming from.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Of course, a lot of health department staff have their own pandemic fatigue, and they have more than the message going out to the public to worry about. They need to prep systems to identify and track future omicron cases while dealing with the current load of delta cases. Elya Franciscus is the epidemiology operations manager for COVID-19 in Harris County, Texas.

ELYA FRANCISCUS: We haven't really slowed down. We've never stopped testing. We've never stopped vaccinating. So it's easy for us to kind of switch from, oh, maybe it looked like we were hitting a low point and we could maybe start slowing down, to OK, new variant, let's ramp up again.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says her department has a plan ready if and when omicron comes to Harris County. And Hlatshwayo Davis in St. Louis says the public health toolkit is a lot more robust than it was.

HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: We have rapid tests available. We have done contact tracing for two years. We have safe and effective vaccines, the ability to provide them now for children above the age of 5. This puts us leaps and bounds where we were when we first started dealing with variants of concern.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Hopefully, those tools can help counterbalance the pandemic fatigue and encourage everyone to listen to the message public health officials are trying to put out in the face of all the unknowns of the omicron variant - don't panic, we're on it, stay tuned.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.